Though Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne is to a large extent a purely personal document—and its importance is largely its testimony to his own development as an artist—it stands also as a significant landmark in the understanding of Cezanne’s work. At the time of the Salon d’Automne of 1907, as Rilke notes, the public (and even painters and critics) showed little understanding of Cezanne. Rilke’s letter of October 16, for example, includes this bitter indictment of his times:It is not possible that a time that can find satisfaction of its need for this kind of beauty [that of the Tivoli, an outdoor variety show] should also admire Cezanne and understand something of his devotion and hidden glory. The merchants make noise, that is all; and those who have a need to attach themselves to these things could be counted on the fingers of two hands, and they stand apart and are silent.
That Rilke’s letters closely anticipated later professional art critics and historians verifies Rilke’s importance to criticism of Cezanne.
Nevertheless, these letters are most interesting because of their documentation of an important turning point in Rilke’s personal and artistic life. Evidence of Cezanne’s importance to specific later works by Rilke is most obvious in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and in a poem written in the fall of 1908, “Requiem fur eine Freundin” (“Requiem for a Friend”). Rilke had begun writing...
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